[originally published in the Journal Antennae]


Cortés Zulueta, Concepción. (Winter 2012). “His Master’s Voice”. Antennae 23, 28-30.

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Francis Barraud (1856-1924), His Master’s Voice, Óleo sobre lienzo, 1898.

A white dog with brown ears sits in front of a gramophone, head directed to its brass-horn and slightly tilted to one side. The original painting was purchased in 1899, along with its full copyright, by the emerging Gramophone Company from the artist Francis Barraud.

There seems to be some confusion regarding the early history of the painting: if it was made while Nipper, the dog, was still alive; if it is based or not on a photograph; what was Barraud’s initial plan; what was the phonograph, then replaced by a gramophone, supposedly playing, or whose idea was its final title, among others. What remains obvious, though, is the worldwide diffusion of an image that acted and has been used both as a brand and as an advertisement by several companies, past and present.

Apart from the mystery surrounding its historical details, the legend accompanying this domestic scene shared more or less the same features everywhere. In fact this myth is what fascinates me the most. As for its overall content I feel inclined to keep the version offered by my Spanish parents, born in the fifties, when feigning ignorance I asked them if the phrase “la voz de su amo” – literally, “his master’s voice”- sounded familiar to them. Both burst out: “of course!”, talked about records and then took turns to explain the touching story of the dog who froze close to a gramophone playing the voice of his late master, seemingly recognising it and maybe trying to make sense of what was happening.

Besides the cuteness of the little dog, it is plausible a considerable chunk of the strength and virality of the picture lie in the questions pointed out by those two words, seeming and maybe. Do dogs identify the sounds coming out of gramophones as someone’s voice? Many people, common people, guided by the slightly cocked head and their own experiences would answer positively, stating that dogs do identify people’s voices in recordings and react to them, in some way or another. But are dogs able to understand these recorded sounds as such, and not as an actual person? To what level do they understand what is happening? This is, in fact, a more complex issue.

In any case, the development of devices that recorded our audiovisual environment prompted comparisons between our senses and perception, and those of animals. For instance, to what degree they were tuned to each other, if animals saw, heard and perceived as we did or not. Recorders interposed another step between the actual world and perception. A level which could be easily manipulated and played with, fabricating products, such as photographs, films or audio-recordings, that in some circumstances even posed as reality. But knowing what a gramophone was and what it did, kept ourselves aware and complicit with its secrets, and safe not to be fooled by the machine.

However dogs, poor little dogs, were suspected of not being so smart. So maybe Nipper did recognise his master’s voice, and sat there interested, wondering, head titled to one side. Nevertheless, apparently he never reached any final conclusion. For what we know, he may be puzzled by the event in the same way that he may not recognise his own reflection on the brass-horn, or in a mirror. This scene was a harmless alternative to persuade about the fidelity of the recorded sound without the risk of offending the intelligence of the human – male?- customers, and strengthening simultaneously their confidence and dominant position back at home, sweet home. Maybe this was not just a portrait of man as master of animals and creation. After all, one could be the master not only of his own dog, but also of servants, children, wife and the whole household.

The success of the main strokes of this scheme can be validated by the existence of recent variations, very similar although focused in sight instead of hearing. Like two 2011 Samsung Galaxy commercials that show a hen and a little girl deceived by the smart-phone vivid images. The hen, brooding the eggs in a screen, and the girl dropping the gadget inside a goldfish bowl trying to save a clownfish that was not really there. There are also plenty of Internet videos with dogs tilting their heads when faced with persons in online video-chats. This may be possibly because we find that charming, as well as the floppy and genetically selected neotenic ears that may partially cause so much tilting in order to avoid the obstruction of the sound waves.

Beyond the puzzlement that we attribute to the dog, there is another strong emotional content in the painting. Is Nipper aware of what death is? Is he mourning his beloved master? Perhaps to feed our human pride we would feel tempted to answer that he is, but we don’t know for sure. On the other hand if the depicted vignette were a scientific experiment to check if Nipper possessed a death concept, nowadays it probably would have been considered as ethically unacceptable like the experiment in which Colin Allen and Mark Hauser described and then challenged, consisting on studying the reaction of a female monkey when listening to a recorded call of her dead infant. However, the brown and white dog can be labelled as an update of the Victorian topic of the mourning dog. A topic also found in other times and cultures. For instance, in Japan, where a statue remembers Hachiko the faithful.

All these melodramatic associations seem especially suitable for a company devoted to music, which entangles love, life and death. Matters perfectly captured in what looks like a plain homey scene. If we mix together these with the human-animal perception riddle, the shameless compliment to our amazing human abilities and the appeal of the dog’s slightly tilted head, what else could we ask for in an ad?


Link to the paper in my academic profile: